As Told To Veronica R. Wells
"Colorism is the Ugly, Twin Sister of Racism" A Conversation With Esha Jordan
After Rickey Smiley made a joke about the skin tone of dark skinned women, Esha Jordan recorded this video and posted it on her Facebook page. The video went viral. While all of this happened months ago, Esha still has plenty to say on the topic.
What were you taught about your own skin tone growing up?
When I was younger, I was definitely taken around certain family members--and this is by my father. Because my father is darker complected and my mom is my skin tone. So I definitely saw more of it, now realizing it, from my dad. We would go around family members and barbeques and it was always, ‘Oh she’s so pretty.’ ‘Look at her skin.’ ‘Oh she has good hair.’ And as a child, I didn’t really understand it. But I know now that I relished in it. My grandmother, her nickname for me was Miss Priss. And compared to my other cousins-- I’m not fair skinned or yellow in tone but I do have a reddish hue to my skin--so compared to my cousins, I’m lighter. So going around family functions, it was a lot of that ‘She’s cute and she’s pretty.’ and as a kid I was like, ‘Oh I’m cute.’ And now that I’m an adult I’m like ‘I wasn’t all that cute as a kid.’ My cousins were cute too. But as a child you don’t realize things while you’re going through them. So now that I look back at it, I realize that was amped up because of my skin color because I wasn’t that much of a hot looking kid. I look at some of my pictures and I’m like ‘Eh.’
Did your mom reinforce those beliefs?
She actually didn’t. I think my mom actually caught me telling one of my friends one day, ‘Well you know, I have good hair.’ And my mom sat me down and was like ‘What is your definition of good hair?’ And I was probably 8 or 9 at the time. That was my mom’s indication to let her know that my dad was reinforcing or pushing this behavior. But my mom never did. Because I have an older brother that’s dark skinned. And my second older brother is lighter than my older brother. We all have the same father but some of us took on the tone of my dad and some of us took on the tone of my mom. So she was very adamant not to make a difference between skin color, hair texture or any of that. She didn’t stand for it at all.
What made your ideology change?
The thing that really amped it up for me that let me know that it was a problem was when I moved up north I was surrounded by Puerto Rican girls. And this was my first time knowing what a Puerto Rican was. Here in the South, you see some Mexicans but there aren’t a lot of Puerto Rican girls. So when I moved up there, you had your White people, you had Black people that came from New York and you had your Puerto Ricans. So there were lighter complected Black girls, darker complected Black girls and Puerto Rican girls. So now I’m in the not picked group of girls as far as being dated. And that opened my eyes. I was a teenager at the time but where I was used to being picked and relished as far as what guys looked at as being beautiful, now I was on the opposite team.
As a teenager, I didn’t understand it. But this is why I speak up about it because now I get it. And I started to listen to the girls because honestly there were some girls that were darker complected that had animosity toward me but I didn’t understand it until I was put in their position. And it opened my eyes as to why some darker complected women feel that way towards lighter complected Black women because some of us still relish in the privilege we get in dating. So I can speak about it honestly and tell people ‘You can ignore it and make it seem like it doesn’t go on but it goes on. It definitely does.’
What age were you when you realized you needed to speak out about this?
I was going through my Facebook page and some people were like ‘Oh, she’s just now speaking up about it.’ But I’ve spoken about for, I would say, the last six years, almost. Because I started to see that it was indeed a problem, it wasn’t just little, isolated incidents. It was becoming more and more mainstream. I started to do a lot more research and how deep it goes and how colorism has been pushed even way back and perpetrated in slavery times, way we look at each other the way we do, concerning skin color. And becoming an adult, getting some college education, I understood why some Black men view lighter complected women a certain way in the media why darker complected women were portrayed as the Mammy role and lighter complected women were portrayed in the Sapphire role, where they were highly promiscuous. It’s a whole history to it. And not just isolated to women but also to darker complected males. I experienced that looking at my two older brothers.
Now that I’m older, my children range in color. I have nieces and nephews that are darker complected. So it’s a constant state of reinforcing, to let them know that you have ignorant people out here but try to change things that they hear, I grew up on the word ‘naps.’ I try to change from hearing that my whole to ‘No, they’re tight curls.’ Your hair isn’t nappy, those are tight curls.
So it’s trying to get out of what I heard and what I’ve been taught from family members or my dad. And I’ve even had conversations with my dad like ‘What drew you to mom?’ He came out and said, ‘You know she looked different. She was exotic looking.’ So yeah, he came out and said I liked your mom and the way she looked because she was lighter complected. I’m honest about the things that I’ve experienced in my life and even as far as family. I don’t have a problem laying it out. And if I can help it, I’m going to talk about it as much as possible.
Esha later noted: My father has kicked his colorist attitude. It was taught to him which I understand but my siblings and I ensured there would be no "favorites" when our children came along. The attitude he had with me when I was younger isn't expressed with his grandchildren because we shook him down.
You mentioned you have children and changing the language. But in the media, you still often only see a certain type of Black woman. She’s usually lighter skinned with loose, curly hair. It’s rare to see a brown-skinned Black girl with undeniably Black hair. How do you counter some of those images?
I had a situation with my oldest daughter. She’s lighter complected compared to my two youngest daughters. I took her to Toys R Us and I went to pick her out a baby doll and there were only darker complected baby dolls left and she did not want that doll. And we had a bout right there in Toys R Us because I said ‘You said you wanted this particular baby doll. Why don’t you want it now?’ And she said, ‘Well the doll doesn’t look like me mommy and that doll’s not that cute.’ And at this, I got angry because I’m like ok I’m not doing my job as a mother. ‘Why do you think this doll isn’t cute?’ She said, “Well Mommy, the doll is darker than me.’ So we stayed in that store a good 45 minutes after me hearing that because I needed to explain to her every shade of Black is beautiful. Brown is beautiful. We have different hair textures, we have different hair styles that we wear and it’s all beautiful. So I definitely feel the need to reinforce to my daughters, ‘Looking at your sisters and that’s not just your biological sisters but sisters out in the world. When you grow up you’re going to understand you’re part of a sisterhood being a Black woman. And it’s important to uplift and encourage each other that everyone is beautiful in their own right and in their own light.
Me and my sister, we talk about this a lot. People don’t understand when you think of a popular, one of the most famous, female Black actresses, you think of Halle Berry. And people don’t understand why she received those roles that she did for the longest amount. Now, you have Viola Davis coming through who’s an outstanding and remarkable actress. Those actresses didn’t receive a lot of roles and when they did it portrayed them in a certain light. So some people don’t want to admit that Halle Berry was our leading Black woman for the longest time because of how she looked, her skin color.
Let’s talk about Rickey Smiley. What was it about that day that made you feel like this is enough. I have to say something.
I had to clarify that because I understand that when people first saw that video, I was upset. That’s one thing I can’t take back. I meant what I said but if I could have changed the way that I said it, I would have. Because I went off in that video. But I still stand behind what I said.
Well, I didn’t see no problem with it.
He said ‘I had a dark skinned girl over my house the other day and she walked in the kitchen and the skillet started laughing.’
So, for one, I had to go back to clarify. I don’t listen to his morning show every day. Most of the time I’m listening to a Phil Collins cd or Anita Baker. I have the kids bored going to school. So this day, I’m flipping through and I catch a part of his radio show and they were doing a Paternity Test Tuesday. And I’m waiting for them to get done cuz maybe they’re going to play some music. And he comes out of nowhere with this joke. And I’m trying to break down the joke like why would the skillet?.. I’m trying to analyze it because I was like ‘Maybe I’m taking it out of context.’ But I’m sitting down like no. I have a cast iron skillet that I cook with and it’s black. Ok, so he’s saying the skillet is laughing at this girl’s skin color because the skin color is laughable? It should bring a joke? And it pissed me off! That’s the part where I’m like, of all the things that darker complected Black women are saying about colorism, they’re always the butt of jokes. And if I’m overreacting, somebody please tell me some jokes about lighter skinned Black women that I don’t know about. I can understand this because I used to be the one to partake in those jokes. I, at one time, thought it was funny to laugh at a darker Black woman’s expense because I was ignorant. So I know when you’re saying a joke in a certain light.
Were your kids in the car when you heard this?
No they were not in the car, they had just gotten out. I stay literally 4 minutes away from my kids’ school so I’m in the car a very short time, then I’m back in the house. But I caught it and I heard it. One lady was like ‘I bet God meant for you to hear it. I think you were supposed to hear it and say that.’
But I received so many inbox messages (and that’s something I wish that I could show people) from women telling me their stories, like ‘You’re not overreacting, I’ve dealt with this my whole life. I tried to as many as I could but I stayed up and I cried alot. Plus, aside for him and his response, which I didn’t care for…
What did he say?
He actually came back and did a video and was like, ‘It wasn’t about you.’ A lot of people attacked that I was lighter complected, so why should I care. He was basically saying that I just wanted attention and he makes more money than I do and he was going to get paid for telling the dark joke and what was I going to get paid for saying what I said.
I came back and I was like, ‘I didn’t say what I said for money.’ Today, I have not received a penny for saying what I said because I didn’t say it for money purposes. He just doubled down about it. And I was just like, ‘Some of these Black men’s attitudes,’” and I look at him. I was a fan of him. I thought he was funny when I was younger. Now that I’m older, I don’t too much see anything funny about the comedy he does now. I did go on to say, the things he’s done in the Black community, that’s not to take from that. But that particular joke, I just wanted him to understand that it could have a negative impact on people.
A lot of people were saying, ‘If a Black woman doesn’t find herself beautiful, that’s her business.’
No. Everyone has a stage of growing in their life to where there may not be full confidence. At one point in time, I wasn’t fully confident in myself. And there are children out here that are growing into who they will become. How will they take hearing things like this, darker complected little girls? Keep that in mind. It’s bad enough that people are in denial about the fact that there is colorism but to have a person with his platform say something like that and to not understand the consequences behind it, is what pissed me off.
A lot of these older, Black comedians feel like the things they said in the 80s and the 90s are still acceptable today. And we’re just in a different space. These things just don’t work anymore.
A completely different climate. Steve Harvey actually made a joke on his show, I think it was about Asian men. They got on him. And there are always apologies issued when it’s everybody else. And that’s something else that I’ve looked at and paid attention to. Everybody else deserves an apology and respect but if it’s Black women saying, ‘Hey, this bothered us.’ Oh, ‘Toughen up. Get over it.’ People don’t seem to know where they want Black women. You’re either are being too strong and too masculine or you’re being too weak and you need to suck it up. There’s never a straight and narrow path that you can take that is right.
And what’s disgusting about that, is that Black women are the backbone of your career.
I’m telling you I can stay on the phone with you for the longest because I’ve sat and looked at Steve Harvey as a whole and I’ve looked at his ex wife, compared to his new wife and how she looks. And I’m tired of people acting like that’s not a thing or it doesn’t exist. Yes it does. We see it.
People ask ‘Well, why are celebrities talked about more?’ Because they’re the ones that are in the spotlight and the limelight. People don’t understand why people got on Kodak Black. There are other countries and people that listen to this fool. It’s saying you don’t like your own skin tone. People are like, ‘Well what’s wrong with dark skinned Black women to where a person their color doesn’t even like them?’ And then people can shape and form opinions of dark skinned Black women, Black women as a whole based on what a fool said. And that’s why I was so upset with Rickey Smiley. You said this on a national syndicated radio show. Anybody tuning in could have heard what you said.
There are consequences to anyone that says something because it can affect someone else in a negative way. At least, when it’s brought to your attention, at least take accountability for it. If I say something that hurts someone and they bring it to my attention, what kind of person would I be to not even acknowledge that I hurt their feelings? I would have to be less than person to be like, ‘Oh I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.’ The hauntiness of it, especially with Black men who are celebrities. It’s sickening at times the things that they say and there’s no consequences to be faced.
Black women really have to reevaluate the type of men we’re supporting. Because a lot of them aren’t here for us.
We have to understand that it’s not always going to be a battle that’s won with words. We’ve got to hit people where it matters and that’s their pockets. If Rickey Smiley wants continue to use dressing up as a Black woman as the forefront of his comedy, if he wants to continue to make fun of Black women and their mannerisms, then Black women, if we have a problem with this, let’s start withdrawing our money from his ticket sales. Let’s see how it fares with us not tuning into his show. Because I have not forgotten the situation that happened with his son and that teenage, Black girl that was on there, the dark skinned girl was on there.
Let’s let people know how we feel when that check that he keeps bragging about starts to dwindle a little bit.
He actually said, ‘Majority of my viewers are Black women. So why would I say anything to hurt them?’
But you did.
He was attacking people in his comments that were telling him they didn’t like what he said and this woman was right. He was like, ‘Get off my page and f*ck you.’ He called one woman stupid. ‘If you like and support her, you just as stupid as she is.’ It was a mess. And at the end of it, there was no accountability.
It’s crazy and people do not understand how dark skin is associated with everything bad. You turn on your tv and you see police brutality happening against Black men, what color are they? They don’t understand how deep that it goes, how rooted it is in us as a people. You supporting colorism is in chain with you supporting racism. Racism is what spawned colorism in the first place. Before we were introduced to what a White person even was, I seriously doubt we were sitting there comparing our skin colors because there was nothing to compare it to. So we were introduced to this and people don’t understand that we’ve been indoctrinated with this so heavily that we carry it out.
You know, it’s not just a Rickey Smiley issue. Kodak Black is out here saying things like that. Lil Wayne has said things like that. And all of these men are darker complected men.
I did a video about that idiot [Kodak] speaking about it again. But that was to clarify where Black men come rushing to his aid and saying ‘Well that’s his preference.’ And I was explaining to them, ‘No that’s not a preference.’ People don’t understand what a preference is. In order to prefer something over something else, the other thing has to be in consideration. That’s not a preference, he just flat out said he doesn’t like dark skinned women. That’s not a preference, that’s a dislike. And to me that’s self hate. Period, point blank. And I broke down and said I have a preference for a man who is my height or taller but that does not mean I have not dated men that are shorter than me. It’s not hard for you to have a preference to keep your mouth shut and not talk about someone that you do not like. That’s where my problem comes in at. ‘Dark Black women do this’ and ‘I don’t like them.’ Shut up and there wouldn’t be a problem. I doubt my dark skinned Black women really care if you’re off the dating market. I don’t think anyone’s losing sleep over that. It’s the fact that you’re ridiculing them and talking down on them. That’s not cool with me and that’s not cool with a lot of women.
I honestly think that it’s been indoctrinated in us as a people to find lighter skin--which going back to slavery, you had your house Negroes and your field Negroes--lighter skin has always been compared to being closer to White. And being closer to White was always perceived to be better. “House Negroes” received better treatment than slaves that were out in the field so that gave them a superiority complex.
Even though we all at the bottom.
Some historians have said that when it was time to run, house negroes wanted to stay with master because they thought that they had better treatment and that he was good to them, not understanding that we still in the same boat. So to me, it’s trickled down from slavery to the Jim Crow era, the minstrel shows, painting themselves in Blackface. Dark skin has always been portrayed as ugly.
I tell some women, if you don’t believe it’s been a problem, go into your local drugstore or makeup counter and see what’s the darkest shade of makeup they have. A dark skinned sister would put it on and say, ‘This got my face looking ashy.’ They’ve had to put up a fight to even get makeup to match their skin tone. Hearing little quips like ‘This color doesn’t look good on dark skin.’ ‘A dark skinned woman shouldn’t do this to her hair.’ Just all types of mess! And it’s been ignored for so long but I think it’s definitely important for Black women as a whole to embrace our dark skinned sisters because we are one in the same, we just come in different shades. So it’s important for us to stand with and for each other when you see something like this going on. Ignoring it because it, as people say, doesn’t have anything to do with you because you’re lighter complected, no, yes it does because that’s a sister, that’s my sister.
A lot of times lighter skinned women, either they’ve bought into it or they don’t want to acknowledge their privilege.
I’ve been on a couple of YouTube channels and seen some women say, ‘What’s this light skinned privilege that everyone say we have because I don’t see it.’ Oh no, you see it, you’re just choosing to ignore it. It’s definitely a privilege and I see it, especially with men. I was actually put in a situation where I was at a club. And I don’t like going to clubs, I’ll throw that out there. I didn’t want to be there. But I had a guy that approach me. And I was standing next to a girl who was drop dead gorgeous. Now, I’m not a lesbian but I can sit there and compliment someone when I can see that they’re beautiful. Her skin was glowing. She was dressed better than I was because I didn’t like the dress I was in. And he kind of scooted past her and said, ‘Hey, can I get to know you?’ And I’m standing up there, looking at him like, ‘You don’t see her?’ You just passed by her, to talk to me?! And I was like, ‘No, I’m married but I believe she’s single.’ And he was like. ‘Oh, I don’t like dark skinned females.’ I’ve heard people say that and I don’t understand it. At this point in my life, I don’t understand it.
So what is the role for other light skinned women at this point?
To understand that there are certain privileges that we do take part of, even if it’s just things that people say. We don’t get told that certain colors won’t look right on our hair or on our bodies. We don’t have jokes told about us. We aren’t always the brunt of a joke when it comes to skin color. Stop ignoring it. Stop acting like it’s not a problem. And not only that, make sure you don’t partake in what other people do. When you see it happening, speak up because there is a person on the other end of it, that’s getting hurt behind it. No one likes to have a joke told about them when they’re an unwilling participant. Don’t just sit back and say ‘Well, I’m not the one saying it, so it’s ok.’ Learn to stand up when you see it being done. Contrary to popular belief, dark skinned Black women aren’t making this up.
I did an interview with someone through Facebook and she said the first thing she thought about me when she heard me saying was that I felt sympathy for my dark skinned Black women. And that pissed me off. She didn’t understand how I could understand because I’m lighter complected. And I explained to her, no I understand because I was once the person that took part in the ridicule. But also, you don’t necessarily have to be in the exact position someone is in to know that what’s happening to them is wrong. If you saw a paraplegic being bullied, you don’t have to be a paraplegic yourself to know that them being bullied is wrong. It’s not a sympathy thing, it’s a right and wrong thing.And it’s wrong. This isn’t a ‘Oh poor dark skinned Black women.’ No, that’s not it at all. My sisters and fierce and they’re strong but they’re tired of being the brunt of jokes and being told that they aren’t beautiful, that their skin isn’t something to be adored and it is.
It’s a fight going on, as far as colorism. I’ve heard a lot of lighter complected Black women say, ‘Well dark skinned Black women don’t like lighter complected women. They talk about us.’ Yeah, that’s true but understand why. There is a why behind it. People say colorism goes both ways. You’re right it does but we have to start taking responsibility for some of these women’s attitudes because it is in large part behind how lighter complected Black women have treated them and relished in their privilege. So there is a reason why some darker complected Black women don’t vibe with lighter complected Black women because they see them taking part in colorism and not doing anything about it. So if I could say something to my lighter complected Black women, stop being quiet and stop allowing this to be the norm. If you have to give up your privilege then do it. It’s worth it to stand with your sisters and fight with them.
Do you think things are taking a turn for the better in the community and representation, specifically darker skin tones?
I’m beginning to see some breakthroughs but not enough. The thing that I see when they do portray darker complected Black women, they’re not--how can I say this? They’re not dark enough. You know when you see a brown skinned woman mixed in but she’s not dark enough. The hair texture, it’s straight or braided up and she looks like, even though she is darker complected, that she’s mixed with something. I can definitely say I see it pushed being in but if you want to do it correctly, let’s start--I believe she’s a model, her name is Nyakim. And she has beautiful, dark ebony skin. Her skin tone is beautiful. Put those sisters in there. Let’s get the sisters with their afros in there. Let’s see the true texture of what most of our dark skinned Black women have. Adding a darker shade than what you usually have isn’t always the breakthrough that’s needed.
What would you say to people who feel like speaking about issues of colorism is counterproductive, that it makes the problem more pronounced.
I actually made a post and I said that colorism is the ugly, twin sister of racism and people thought that I was crazy when I said that. But the reason why lighter complected Black women and men don’t want to talk about it, is almost the same reasoning behind why White people don’t want to talk about racism. It’s uncomfortable. It comes with giving up certain privileges. So it’s better to just sweep it under the rug, like ‘Yeah we see it but we don’t want to talk about it because it makes us uncomfortable.’ I definitely believe that that’s part of it. It’s a narrative that people do not want to get into because then you have to address why you sat quiet for so long, why you relished in the privileges, why you haven’t been standing up. Some people aren’t ready to do that. I’m ready to do it, admit mistakes in the past. I laid it out there because I’m ready to see some change with it.
I think some people rely on thinking it’s mostly an adult conversation. But there are children that are growing up with darker skin and they’re being made to feel like something’s wrong with them. And that’s a problem. And I can say that because I’m the mother of five little ones.
I had a little girl come up to me and tell me ‘You’re so beautiful.’ And I told her, ‘You are too baby.’ And she said, ‘No, I wish I had your skin color.’ That was another pivotal moment in my life. No, something’s wrong here. It’s not just adults that have this problem. We have to understand that there is a generation coming up behind us and there are little minds that are being molded behind the things that they see. And people don’t understand the [Clark] baby doll test that they do where they have a Black doll and a White doll. If the White doll is being chosen by Black children, a lighter complected Black doll would be the next closest thing to the White doll. A lot of us in our community, we don’t like to talk and address colorism but we need to because there’s a division within us as a people and sweeping it under the rug is only going to get us so far.